Classy act that should be copied

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Luxuriating on holiday in Germany, I listened to BBC radio to maintain contact with home. A major news item was the concern about class sizes and Gillian Shephard's refrain that size wasn't important.

The item said German classes were bigger than British classes and that German children performed better in tests compared with their British peers - "facts" I would challenge on several fronts. And the implication that all in the German garden is rosy needs further investigation.

Class sizes in Germany are fixed by law. Currently in North Rhine Westphalia, the primary class attended by my nine-year-old niece is at a maximum of 30. Should another child be put on roll the class will be split in half.

If a temporary crisis occurs, such as an enforced teacher absence through sickness, then the well-tried PTA telephone network swings into action and children are sent home. Compare this to Britain where classes are taught by supply teachers unfamiliar to the children, headteachers of uncertain ability, or are split up around the school.

Teachers and parents in Germany expect teachers to teach and not act as childminders or crowd marshals. Teachers have high expectations of their own pedagogic skills and demand the conditions in which to practise them. It is taken for granted that parents will support their children's progress.

Children's class work is graded on a nationally recognised system so that parents are left in no doubt about progress. If a child's average grade is not good enough, he or she repeats the year. A second failure guarantees a place in a special school.

Control of class size, highly-regarded teachers, and informed parents within a stable system seem to be the secrets of German success. However unfamiliar these aspects of education are, the headline in the local paper could have come straight from any British paper: "Test Results Catastrophe".

The local Chamber of Commerce equivalent had given tests in basic maths and German to apprentices who sadly failed. Significantly, the industrialists blamed the school system not the teachers. On returning to England, I read in my TES that Gillian Shephard, urged on by the Confederation of British Industry, is cautiously contemplating basic tests for A-level students. Perhaps she could also consider if the German approach to class sizes and support for teachers would be appropriate.

Bob Aston is head of a primary in Kent.

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